I have very good news to announce,” French Defense Minister Herve Morin declared at a press conference on Nov. 5. “The [Airbus] A400M has taken off and can now fly its destined route.”

Morin, removed days later in a cabinet reshuffle, was speaking metaphorically. That morning, he and Louis Gallois, chief executive of EADS, met with Occar (a French acronym for Organization for Joint Armament Cooperation), which manages the A400M on behalf of seven partner nations, to finalize the contract, renegotiated last March, that will be signed by Occar on behalf of the partners with Airbus Military, a subsidiary of EADS.

Morin said the agreement “on Europe’s most ambitious [defense] program” means that the French air force, will receive the first of its aircraft in 2013 and the next seven in 2014. Originally, the first delivery should have been in late 2009 or early 2010. France will pay €8.4 billion ($11.1 billion) for the 50 aircraft it has ordered, an amount Morin says is “much less expensive than if we’d bought an aircraft off-the-shelf, which, in addition, would not have the same performance as [the A400M].” The price per aircraft, he said, “is less than that of a [Lockheed Martin] C-130J or a [Boeing] C-17.”

He added that the A400M could carry “the vast majority of our army’s equipment with no need to dismantle it. For example, we could fit two Tiger [helicopters] or three VBCI [armored wheeled infantry vehicles] in it.” The A400M can transport 15 tons of cargo nonstop from France to Djibouti in the Horn of Africa, or 17 tons to Kandahar in Afghanistan and “land on [an earthen] runway,” which no other large military transport can do, he told journalists.

“This is an emblematic program which the Europeans could not afford to let go,” Morin stressed, adding that “if it had failed, Europe would have been under the yoke of the United States in the 21st century” when it came to sourcing air transports. Cancellation would have had unpleasant political consequences, as well, in the form of massive job cuts—40,000 positions in Europe depend on the program, including 12,000, directly and indirectly, in France.

The Nov. 5 contract that was endorsed by the seven nations largely follows the agreement they reached on March 5, 2010: the partners will pay €11 million per aircraft and lend Airbus Military €1.5 billion, which the company will reimburse from export contracts for the aircraft. The partner nations also agreed that the aircraft will have six versions, the final one being launched in 2018.

Gallois attributes the delays in the A400M program to its size and engineering challenges. When EADS signed the initial contract in 2003, “we grossly underestimated the complexity of this program, and that’s why we fell behind. The [initial] 6.5-year [development] calendar was unrealistic.”

Meanwhile, the Grizzlies, as the test A400Ms are named, are undergoing intensive flight tests. On Nov. 4, Grizzly 3 dropped paratroopers for the first time, two each from the U.K. and French armed forces, and two from the French flight-test center. By the second week of November, the test aircraft had accumulated more than 800 flight hours. Grizzly 4 was to be delivered by the end of December.

Airbus Military says the flight envelope, artificial icing, velocity of minimum control and velocity minimum unstick tests are complete. Testing of cruise performance, climb, braking and flutter flight were underway at press time. Some military-specific tests such as night-vision operations have been done, and tests for landing on unpaved runways are planned.

The cold-weather and hot-and-high trials take place this year, along with cargo operations and evaluation of the autopilot. “The objective is that we get civil certification before the end of 2011,” Barbara Kracht, a representative of Airbus Military, tells DTI.

The seven partner nations of the A400M program are Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Spain, the U.K. and Turkey. The original order called for 180 aircraft, but this is now 170 after Germany reduced its order to 53 from 60 (see p. 48)—although it maintains an option for the seven it cut—and Britain reduced its order to 22 from 25. France has maintained its 50-aircraft order, as have Spain (27), Turkey (10), Belgium (7) and Luxembourg (1).